25 September 2008

Three Cheers for The Ship!


By God just because a film is blatant propaganda designed to rally the home front during a war doesn't mean its not a cracking good show. A surprising number of excellent films about the second world war were released during the second world war. (Is it a measure of the Iraq war's unpopularity that the same cannot be said of the current conflict?)

A couple of months ago I posted a list of really good World War II movies. RD Finch who has an excellent film blog of his own, The Movie Projector suggested I would have done well to include In Which We Serve (1942) a British film that marked the directorial debut of one David Lean. (Actually he shared directing honors with the film's screenwriter, producer and star, Noel Coward.)

I had to sheepishly confess that I'd never seen In Which We Serve. Tonight I righted that wrong by catching a beautiful new print of it at the Pacific Film Archives. The British Film Institute has remastered a number of Lean's films in honor of the centennial of his birth.

So my question is, how did I miss this wonderful film for all these years? I suppose that even as aged a man as yours truly can't have seen everything. Indeed, I'm jut now catching up with the films of Swedish bloke named Bergman (The Seventh Seal is all its cracked up to be, if not more).

In Which We Serve is ostensibly about a ship, a British destroyer seeing action in the early part of the war. Of course ships tend to work much better with a crew so we get to meet many of them and even some of their families. The focus is the captain, played by Coward.

The effete Noel Coward, he of the cocktail and witty bon mot in the drawing room as a British naval captain? Come on! Trust me, it works. Coward may have been a bit of fop (a right bloody talented one) but he was also superb actor. Plus he had the bearing appropriate to an officer.

It's no spoiler to tell you the ship sinks. We see that early on in the film, then much of the story is told in flashback. I was surprised at how realistic In Which We Serve was in depicitng naval life in war time. Battle scenes, shipboard life and those aching visits home. It's hard to imagine (though this film helps) what it was like to be home on leave during war time. Trying to spend "normal" time at home with loved ones. Trying to pack in "special" moments. Not knowing whether you'll come home again and in what condition. And not even knowing if home would be there. In Which We Serve reminds us that those back home in England were vulnerable too with the the Blitz destroying homes and lives.

The cast is excellent and includes an incredibly young Richard Attenborough in his film debut. None of the heroics seem false and the audiences will not feel manipulated by excessive sentiment. British understatement at its best. And its not lip service to say that the ship is a key character. There's some wonderful opening moments showing the actual construction of the ship. we also see just how devoted a crew was to its ship, a relationship perhaps shared by pilot's and their planes.

Like many superior films In Which We Serve tells a multi layered story covering several years with seeming ease. It clocks in at under two hours. Quite a contrast to Lean's later epics.

Undoubtedly In Which We Serve did serve to help rally the allies. It's message of courage and devotion to the cause must have been crystal clear and quite comforting. Audiences today may not be so moved but they will enjoy a rousing good tale quite well told.

As Coward's captain says of his sinking ship, "three cheers..."

1 comment:

rdfinch said...

I'm pleased that you appreciated "In Which We Serve" as much as I did. I certainly agree with you about the movie's subtlety compared with many of the heavy-handed American movies made during WW II. I saw this on TCM, which generally shows very good prints, but I envy you being able to see it remastered and on the big screen at PFA. Did you notice that the very young Daniel Massey plays Coward's son in the home scenes? I liked the way the movie showed how the war affected all social classes. The war was probably the last nail in the coffin of the British class system, and this movie helps explain why.